A high-speed drone test-bed project commissioned by Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) took its next step toward completion at the 163d Attack Wing’s Hap Arnold Center located at March Air Reserve Base, California.
Silicon Valley software developer Rick Bond, along with representatives from Autonodyne and Kratos Composite Engineering, spent March 16-17, 2017, collaborating with remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) pilots to test end-user experience on a new tablet-based user interface designed to control Kratos’s UTAP-22 unmanned tactical aircraft.
“We’re here validating the work we’ve been doing on the tablet interface,” said Mike Bailey, a Kratos field engineer and UTAP-22 operator. “We spent the last six months making this interface, and when we reached back to DIUx, they said, ‘Go talk to users.’”
Before coming to the Hap Arnold Center, the team had spent two days testing the interface with fighter pilots at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, located in the California desert about 150 miles north of Los Angeles.
The UTAP-22 is a fighter-like unmanned aircraft based on the U.S. Air Force BQM-167A aerial target. With a maximum speed of .91 mach and operational altitude of 20 ft. above ground level to 50,000 ft. mean sea level, the UTAP-22 is capable of teaming with manned fighters as “wingmen,” or being pushed out ahead into harm’s way to gather data and assess threats on behalf of the manned aircraft trailing it.
At present, the UTAP-22 can be operated from a ground control station or from the back of a Beechcraft King Air, Bailey said, but the endgame is to get the interface in the back of a fighter jet.
“The whole goal is to get this interface into the back seat of a fighter jet, or into the front seat, so that the folks who need the teaming can command the aircraft,” Bailey said. “You could be in the back seat of a jet with four drones in tow and then ask them to get out in front and spread out 50 miles.”
Working with members of the 163d was a natural fit, said Maj. Mike Baird, who serves as the wing’s project officer for the Hap Arnold Center.
“They requested as many RPA, fighter and bomber pilots as they could get, and our guys come from a good mix of backgrounds,” Baird said.
Each pilot received an explanation of the tablet interface and a quick tour of the system before performing a set of scripted tasks while the screen was recorded.
“We record the screen and where they’re touching so we can understand what worked and what didn’t,” Bailey said.
For the pilots, the opportunity to try out and provide input for an emerging system was special.
“It’s refreshing, particularly working with systems where they didn’t do enough of that, so it’s great to see somebody doing this kind of thing,” said Kara, a former Air Force pilot who flew the C-5, C-21, T-3 and MQ-1 aircraft before becoming a contractor and RPA instructor pilot for the MQ-9 Reaper at the 163d Attack Wing’s formal training unit.
Kara, who described the interface as “very user friendly,” found the team easy to work with and passionate about the project.
“They’ve got some great ideas and I am impressed with them and their product,” she said.
Having pilots’ input during the build process is critical, Bailey said.
“We’re trying to build this thing as fast as possible,” he said. “When you iterate that quickly, you’re in a bubble, and you eventually need to get out there in front of people and ask them if you’ve made the right decisions.”
“Some of them are good decisions, we’re finding, but some of them are terrible,” Bailey said. “We can easily go back at this in a couple weeks, keep the things that were good ideas, strip out the bad ones, lock down the final version and go fly it.”
The team plans to return to NWS China Lake for ground and aerial testing in May and June, he said.
The DIUx high speed drone team is the first DIUx project to use the Hap Arnold Center since its grand opening and public debut Feb. 22. The Hap Arnold Center, which focuses on training through innovation, is a collaborative environment designed for Airmen and industry partners to brainstorm, develop, and test new technologies for remotely piloted aircraft and cross-platform data integration.
“We are trying to establish the center as a place where people can come get feedback on their products and feedback on the software they are working on,” Baird said. “We want to be that operational environment where people can come and try out their systems on actual operators, leveraging both experienced guys and our formal training unit students.”
With locations of Silicon Valley and Boston, DIUx serves as a bridge between those in the U.S. military performing some of the nation’s toughest security challenges and companies operating at the forefront of technology.
As its name implies, DIUx is just that: an “experiment.” DIUx continuously iterates on how best to identify, contract, and prototype novel innovations through sources traditionally not available to the Department of Defense, with the goal of accelerating technology and putting it into the hands of the men and women in uniform.
Such is the case with the high-speed drone test-bed project.
Down the road, Bailey said, elements of the UTAP-22 user interface may find themselves in the Air Force Research Laboratory’s low-cost attritable strike unmanned aerial system demonstration (LCASD).
“The supervisory control of high-speed unmanned vehicles is what we’re testing right now,” Bailey said. “Years down the road when the LCASD is being flown, a portion of it will use a version of this interface.”
*NOTE: Some last names are omitted for security reasons.